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Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010

Milwaukee’s Eat Local Challenge

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If we’ve learned anything from the recent food recall that now includes more than half a billion salmonella-tainted eggs, sold under more than 20 brands and causing 1,300 reported illnesses, it’s that allowing a small number of industrialized mega-farms to supply a large percentage of America’s food supply is risky business. Milwaukee’s annual Eat Local Challenge couldn’t arrive at a better time.

Fondy Food Center, Outpost Natural Foods, Slow Food Wisconsin Southeast, the Urban Ecology Center and Westown Association have joined forces to organize the Eat Local Challenge, which encourages Milwaukee-area residents to eat locally for the first two weeks of the month, Sept. 1-14.

The first question at hand: What is local? The answer: There isn’t a standard definition for local. Joan Dye Gussow, a nutritionist and 81-year-old matriarch of the eat-locally, think-globally food movement defines local in her 2001 memoir, This Organic Life, as “within a day's leisurely drive of our homes.” Others, such as Plenty authors Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, committed to a full year of eating only foods grown within 100 miles of their residence. Still others get their food from within 100 feet of their doorstep. What’s great about Milwaukee’s Eat Local Challenge is that it allows a participant to define every aspect of his or her challenge.

“The Eat Local Challenge is just to get people to be more conscious about what they’re eating and where it’s coming from,” explains Jamie Ferschinger, community program coordinator for the Urban Ecology Center. “It’s really easy to go into a grocery store, pick something off the shelf and just not think about everything that happened prior to that. Is it coming from Argentina? Is it coming from New York? Or is it coming from somebody who is in the same community as we are? Each one of those choices has a suite of circumstances that comes with it. I think it’s really important right now to start thinking about the re-localization of our food system.”

Advocates (aka locavores) choose to eat locally for a number of reasons, but four main points are driving the movement: concern about the planet; concern about personal health; the importance of investing in local economies; and the taste of fresh food.

Food often travels a great distance from farm to table. Between rising fuel costs and the contribution that transportation is making to global climate change, there is a growing number of people who no longer find eating cherries or tomatoes year-round to be worth the environmental disadvantages. Instead, locavores adjust their menus to what is in-season and purchase whatever’s available at local farmers’ markets.

Many Americans are currently learning painful lessons about food safety. The faceless producers on a distant factory farm lack the transparency that can be found by simply building a relationship—and trust—with local farmers and stores. Wondering if synthetic chemicals are used on that produce, or if those eggs are free-range? Ask the producer next time you see her at the farmers’ market, or visit your CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm.

Studies have shown that when we buy from local producers rather than nationally owned businesses, significantly more of that money is used to make purchases from other local businesses and farms, maintaining or strengthening the economic base of that locale. It’s really quite simple: We keep a farmer in business, and the farmer keeps us fed. The ease and sustainability of that basic exchange often makes more sense than gambling on an unknown agricultural corporation a thousand miles away.

“I think once people try local, especially produce, they’ll appreciate that flavor and taste,” says Lisa Kingery, M.S., R.D., food and nutrition program director at Fondy Food Center. “That alone will be enough to motivate them.” That Red Delicious apple grown by a local farmer and never refrigerated will retain more of its delectable flavor than one shipped in a frigid cargo hold from China. Plus, local farmers often cultivate produce and livestock that are bred for flavor and suitability to our region, rather than for uniformity and ability to travel.

Milwaukee’s Eat Local Challenge features various activities and resources throughout the first two weeks of September, including a kickoff celebration at the Westown Farmer’s Market, a Friends of Real Food dinner, an Eat Local book club through Boswell Book Co., and a local food festival at the Fondy Farmers Market.

For more information, visit www.eatlocalmilwaukee.org.

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